“The Kosher Pig: And Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life”

by Richard Israel [Alef Design Group, 4423 Fruitland Ave., L.A., CA 90058, 1993, $18.95]

Richard Israel begins this book (of 20 republished essays) by invoking the memory of a “personal growth” group that he was once a part of in the 1960’s. The group spent an intense summer together (actually they spent two intense summers together, but that taxes credulity now that it’s the 1990’s), and Israel recalls how each time the Sabbath rolled around, he felt increasingly alienated from everyone else— because he was a Jew. Eventually Israel starts to privately steam about his isolation, obsessing that “there were large pieces of me that the group knew nothing about.”

When he finally, one evening, detonates at the group with a tirade about their total blindness to his reality, “It became very quiet in the room.” The man sitting next to Israel then starts talking about how no one in the group has ever noticed his “secret” disability—one of his legs is shorter than the other, and how, “because of that, I always felt that I was very different from the rest of you.” Another person confesses to how inadequate he feels because he was brought up, and remains, a rural bumpkin, while everyone else in the group is citified. A woman with an accent discloses how weird it has been for her to have no one mention that she’s obviously foreign-born—the true outsider in the group.

“To my astonishment,” writes Israel, “each of the group members had a significant and often hidden characteristic that made them feel as different and separate as my Jewishness made me feel.” He concludes: “I have observed the same phenomenon in every group I have ever been in. Just about everyone feels less a part of every group than everyone else. .. . What may be most different about Jews is that we seem to have taken a nearly universal experience and raised it to the level of a theology, a theology of particularism.”

This story comprises only the first three pages of Israel’s lively book, yet most authors would have taken its themes and carried on for chapters (tomes, lifetimes). Israel, however, wears his insights lightly, little day packs. By page four he has strolled on, genial and picaresque, into a narrative about what he calls his “terminal Jewishness,” and from there to the story of the Jew who travels compulsively and unhappily between Poland and Israel, Poland and Israel. (The immigration officer finally asks him, “You’re not happy in Poland so you travel to Israel. You’re not happy in Israel so you travel to Poland. So where are you happy?” “That’s easy,” answers the man. “When I’m traveling.”)

Mostly, Israel’s essays cover the same territory—the homely tensions inherent in being both a Jew and a modern American. As he peregrinates from one sensible, funny thought to the next, his work (like Laurie Colwin’s or Frank O’Hara’s) is distinctive for how totally it reeks of pleasure—both the giving of it and the taking. Israel’s writing radiates such shocking good sense and intellectual honesty (in real life, he’s a vintage Hillel rabbi) that one imagines these traits having brought him, over time, significant tzoris.

In his “Kosher Pig” essay, Israel shares halakhic stumpers that have been chucked his rabbinic way over the years: “My family keeps our home strictly kosher for Passover which includes getting rid of all leavening,” begins one shylah to the rabbi. “I have a yeast infection. May I go home for Pesach?” In another essay, “How to Survive Your Synagogue.” Israel ponders whether it’s reasonable to expect your shul to “provide you with a spiritual iron lung.” (The answer is no; it’s a great question.)

In “How to Give A D’var Torah: A Beginner’s Guide,” Israel totally wins this reviewer’s heart by advancing the doghouse point of view that “standard Chassidic commentaries leave me cold, particularly if they explain the human and divine psyche in terms of the Sephirot, the Kabbalistic system which tries to show how an infinite God is able to relate to a world of finite matter. I never like the way they dissolve the text and de-historicize it to make it mean something altogether different from what it says.” Israel ends his Sephirah-bashing characteristically: “Friends whose judgment I otherwise trust tell me that I am way off-base in this matter and there is very rich material to be found in these sources. I am not so sure, but perhaps you shouldn’t take my word on this one.”

A charming storyteller, sometimes silly, Israel is a thinker whose emotional attack is clean—never hitting an affective note too sharp or flat. He’s also oppositionally naughty, with logic that’s achingly attractive, and a moral pitch that’s perfect. Kierkegaard asserted that the fundamental quality of a spiritually whole person is “transparency,” and that’s the quality, above all else, that comes through in these essays.

Okay, so I have a crush on Richard Israel.